The swimming pool dedication in Wilmington, Delaware was going well. Joe had been ad-libing some pretty inoffensive drivel for a few minutes. He knew this would look to the world like any other low-ball press event for the ailing presidential campaign of a respected elder statesman past his prime. And to be fair, there was truth to that. But to Joe, ever sincere, the renaming ceremony of the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center was more meaningful than anyone could guess. This was, after all, where Joe worked as a young bachelor. The place where he and Corn Pop had met. Where they had...
Joe paused his speech and flushed briefly before refocussing on the smiling crowd of parents and children. The audience was mostly Black, representative this community in Wilmington, and all the kids were all dressed in their bathing suits ready to swim. A moment later, he picked back up on his run-of-the-mill stump speech; after decades in the public eye, he could just set himself on autopilot and be more or less alone with his thoughts.
As his campaign manager had reminded him before taking the stage, it was his responsibility today to connect this community swimming pool to a greater narrative of his lifelong commitment to justice. This was a gimme; no one was gonna grill him about the 1994 crime bill.
Just tell some old stories Joe. Tell some feel-good story. Tell them why this place is important to you, he thought to himself. Maybe tell the Corn Pop story? Maybe. Maybe just a shortened version. Joe had wanted to tell the Corn Pop story for years, but had successfully kept the desire buried all that time. But here, just a couple steps and a few decades away from where it had happened... And things were different now. His wife Jill had known for years, and voters were ok with that kind of thing now. Lord knows, if anything it might actually swing a few Sanders voters his way.
Anyways, it wasn't like Joe was gay or anything. Not that there's anything wrong with that!, he reminded himself. Gay or trans or bi or all those things, God loves all his children. And Joe loved his Jill so deeply and truly, and he had never felt like that about a man before or since. There had only ever been Corn Pop.
Internally, Joe prayed to God for the courage to do this. And in his sincere and clumsy way, he started to tell the people. He pointed towards the close end of the pool, and began:
"This was the diving board area, and I was one of the guards, and they weren’t allowed to – it was a 3-meter board. And if you fell off sideways, you landed on the damn, er, darn cement over there. And Corn Pop was a bad dude. And he ran a bunch of bad boys.
"Corn Pop and his boys, that's what they were called, Corn Pop always wore his hair short, in tight waves, like they did at the time, and used pomade. The guy took care of his hair, folks. He looked good, he looked like, a Greek - what do you call, like a Roman statue. He was always hanging around, I caught him looking at me, or he caught me looking at him, you never know which it is!
The crowd laughed a little at that. Joe saw the children getting fussy and impatient, so he told them to go ahead and start swimming.
"Actually, the pool, kids, go ahead. Kids, huh? I had, you know, I came here a few years back with Hunter and - kids, you know what I mean? They never, you gotta swim.
The kids ran off eagerly, and soon the sound of splashing and laughter could be heard a few meters off.
"And I did and back in those days – to show how things have changed – one of the things you had to use, if you used pomade in your hair, you had to wear a baby cap. And so he was up on the board and wouldn’t listen to me. I said, ‘Hey, Esther, you! Off the board, or I’ll come up and drag you off.’
"Well, he came off, and he said, ‘I’ll meet you outside.’
"My car this – was mostly, these were all public housing behind us. My car – there was a gate on here. I parked my car outside the gate. And I – and he said, ‘I’ll be waiting for you. He was waiting for me with three guys with straight razors. Not a joke. There was a guy named Bill Wright Mouse the only white guy and he did all the pools. He was a mechanic.
"And I said, ‘What am I gonna do?’
"And he said. ‘Come down here in the basement, where mechanics – all the mechanics – where all the pool builder is.’ You know the chain, there used to be a chain that went across the deep end. And he cut off a six-foot length of chain, and folded it up and he said, ‘You walk out with that chain, and you walk to the car and say, ‘you may cut me man, but I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head.’
"I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’
"He said, ‘No if you don’t, don’t come back.’
"And he was right. So I walked out with the chain. And I walked up to my car. And in those days, you remember the straight razors, you had to bang ’em on the curb, gettin’ em rusty, puttin’ em in the rain barrel, gettin’ em rusty? And I looked at him, but I was smart, then.
"I said, ‘First of all,’ I said, ‘when I tell you to get off the board, you get off the board, and I’ll kick you out again, but I shouldn’t have called you Esther Williams, and I apologize for that. I apologize.’ But I didn’t know that apology was gonna work. He said, ‘you apologize to me?'
"I said, ‘I apologize but not for throwing you out, but I apologize for what I said.’
"There was a pause, the air felt warm and heavy all of a sudden and it felt like time stood completely, what do you, you - a pregnant pause."
At this point the crowd was hanging onto Joe's every word. They followed each curve and turn of his story. He silent for a moment, partially for the effect, and partially to calm his own beating heart, and continued.
"He said, ‘OK,’ closed that straight razor, and my heart began to beat again.
"I saw him do that, and I said 'OK' too, and the sound of it, I dropped the chain, and I remember I never heard the sound of the chain hitting the floor. Far away - it was like a it was a million, a thousand miles away, and the only thing I could hear was the sound of my heart and Corn Pop's breathing. He was breathing hard, I heard it all of a sudden, and his eyes were wide and I realized he was scared too! We had both pretty much pissed ourselves with fear.
"He, I said to him 'Corn Pop I caught you lookin' at me every damn day - every darn day - excuse me - I come to work. I'm just tryin' to pay my rent man. I'm not a - I don't want to fight.'
"And he laughed, he wasn't making fun of, see, he didn't, he was relieved! And I laughed too, we both were laughing and I swear the sky, and he had a beautiful laugh, it had been cloudy earlier like today, it's cloudy, but the sky, the clouds broke open and the sun came out and shone on his skin, he was glistening, you know? And he was this beautiful Black man, so strong. I wished I could be that strong.
"We - me and Corn Pop - I took my break, told my boss Judy, God rest her soul, a real good Delaware woman Judy was, I was taking a ten minute break, we went over to that bench back there", and Joe pointed at an old bench partially behind the swimming center's small administrative building, "they'd just installed it for smoking, that was a new bench at the time, they'd just installed it for the smokers, because people still did that back then. And thank God they don't smoke, but no one else was there, it was just me and Corn Pop, and we had a, a little moment, a quiet moment.
"Corn Pop sat down first and it was the first time I'd seen him alone, without his boys, and his body, it was different, his body language was... He was sort of leaned forward with his hands together and his elbows resting on his knees. I smiled, he only made a little bit of eye contact like he was nervous, and I smiled because, well, I sat down next to him, a few feet away and I thought I could feel the heat coming off his body like that. I've never felt that specific thing ever before or ever since then, feeling someone's heat from so far away. Like I could smell the temperature of him! Of course I had no idea what was going on, and I don't think neither did he."
Every member of the audience and press was leaning subtly forward, enraptured by this story.
"We sat there for a minute, didn't say anything. We could have talked about anything, he had kids you know, we didn't talk about his kids or anything. Just sat there, basking in each other's presence, and again we were stealing looks at each other. I'm old enough, I know what that means when you, you know, when you keep catching someone's eyes like that, you're looking at them looking at, well you get the picture.
"I remember thinking how, more than anything I wanted him close to me, to feel safe in his arms. I just wanted to feel his skin on my skin, we were both shirtless because of the swimming pool and I looked at his strong chest and arms with what I can only describe as a lonely kind of hunger. And I just wanted that so badly, and I just wanted to know if he wanted that too, if he wanted to...
"It took everything I had, I looked over at Corn Pop and I caught his eyes again, but I didn't, this time I didn't let go. I looked right at him from a few feet away and held his gaze, and I moved forward. I though to myself 'he's gonna move back, because he's straight, Joe, and you're straight too and you're gonna cut this out and go back to work'.
"But he didn't. I moved forward cautious but determined, and he stayed there, his lips were slightly opened, and as I got closer, I felt him lean forward towards me, I sensed that magical intense warmth of his body, and I felt like my whole body was on fire."
Joe's eyes were closed and he did some deep breathing exercises his speech therapist had taught him. Moisture was beginning to collect on his eyelashes. The crowd was silent.
"And our faces met, and his lips touched mine. We were both, we were both, he was crying and I was too. I didn't know why.
"But still we moved forward into one another, our chests touched and I felt the roughness of his chest hair against mine, I felt his soft lips part and our tongues intermingled. He was strong, his back, you know... I had a hand on his back, he had one on my ass, he grabbed my ass and pulled me in towards him and I gasped and opened my eyes.
"We looked at each other again and he was smiling and we were both had these big tears streaming down our faces at this point. But I didn't feel sad so I didn't know why I was crying, I felt the freest I'd ever felt in my whole damn life. I felt his breath on my neck as he kissed there on my neck... He was soft and hard at the same time, strong but also soft, and I received him as a being of pure, you know, a being of pure light kissing me all over. He sucked my nipples, which was ticklish. I laughed and said 'hey Corn Pop knock it off, man'.
"He pulled back at that second and he said 'oh, sorry Joe, my old lady likes it when I do that'
"And just like that, the spell was broken. Whatever it was, it was gone. I guess he remembered his girlfriend and his kids, and he pulled away. We were both still breathing so hard. He avoided my look.
"'Hey Joe, I'm sorry', he said.
"I said, 'Corn Pop, man, we can, we can, we can -,' and my stutter, you know I've got a stutter, came back, my mouth couldn't make the right shapes. Or maybe I just didn't have the words. And he looked at me for a moment with his whole soul bared in his expression, you know, all the desire and the hurt, I couldn't even express my damn self, and he left like he was tearing off a band-aid.
"'I'm sorry', that was the last thing he said to me.
"And I didn't see him at the pool anymore. Sometimes I saw him around town with his kids, or with his boys, and there was a twinkle of recognition, but I never pushed it. I ran for Newcastle county council, I had Neilia by that point, we met in the Bahamas, you know I loved her, and Beau was on the way... I loved her more than the world. But Corn Pop, I tell ya folks. I guess it wasn't our time."
By now, tears were streaming down Joe's face. He knew this was a risk. To come out with this story like this, now. But it was out there now, the thing he feared most in the world, it was a long time coming, and a fire raged in his heart.
The crowd was silent. Many were crying, and no one knew what to do with themselves. This hadn't been in the pamphlet.
Joe Biden was never a man known for his grace in public speaking. But he knew how to end this.
"Thank you for the great honor and the privilege of serving you and this community. I hope you will trust me with your vote for president. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Please, folks, enjoy the pool."